We greet July 4th with “Happy Independence Day,” and meet the New Year with “Seasons Greetings”. But even Hallmark hasn’t found a way to standardize a greeting for Martin Luther King Jr Day. However, a day celebrating the legacy of the civil rights movement – our right speak truth to power, to recognize our strength in numbers, and validate the humanity in each other – deserves a greeting of its own. A proposal: “Let freedom ring!”.
On King Day we ring in not just the freedom of civil rights, but the freedom seized by peace rather than armed force. In school we only learned about Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement. The violent wing of the same movement was left out of our elementary school celebrations as well as our high school curriculum.
But side-by-side to the non-violent movement, there was an equal and opposite rise in violence trying to win the same rights for marginalized Americans. In the 1960s, many in America feared that African-Americans would overthrow the government and establish their own nation through a racial war that would rip the country limb from limb. At the time, that idea was not unbelievable – Philadelphia rioted, Chicago burned, and armed Black Panthers policed the streets of California. And at the same time, there was a peaceful March on Washington.
People agitating for freedom had to choose between the attraction of violence with its visible consequences or the abuse heaped on the peaceful protesters – from those who supported their aims as well as those who opposed them. Despite the ease of violence, many Americans – beaten down physically, economically, and emotionally – believed that goodness resided in the hearts of their oppressors. So, they refused to lift a hand against them. Instead of setting fires, they sat at segregated lunchcounters. Rather than resist the police they registered voters – facing arrest and beatings in the process. In the end, Dr. King and those who believed in peaceful protest, rather than his violent counterparts, were credited with the creation of the Civil Rights Bill and the more equal society it helped form.
Today we recognize that mass movements have the power to shape history – to bend its arc toward freedom or to tyranny. Yet movements, at their heart, are nothing but one person acting on their belief – together with others acting on the same belief. Our celebration of King Day is not just one of the civil rights we have, but also the belief in peace and human dignity which procured those rights. Today is dedicated to how we act in face of adversity, the way in which we turn back injustice and establish freedom. Let freedom ring!